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Amy Wright on The Necro pastoral

The Fleecy White Pastoral of Decay

Review of Joyelle McSweeney, The Necro-pastoral, Spork Press (2011)



            Scholar Harold Toliver characterizes the pastoral by its appetite “to devour elegies, lyrics, plays, fairy tales, masques, odes and even to gnaw ambitiously at romances, epics, and novels,”[i] making it the crème genre and choice palate cleanser for the epicurious 21st century. Joyelle McSweeney savors its power to absorb by opening The Necropastoral with a critical essay on Jack Smith’s film Normal Love, which he refers to on a grant application as “EXOTIC LANDORDISM OF THE WORLD.” If one doesn’t own a field and sheep of her own, she might reel through “the crinkled Vale of / Food-for-thought” choosing kumquats and squashing grapes.[ii]

            It is telling that this hard-bound chapbook published by Spork Press features no publication city. The Necropastoral is cross-location, takes place in a modern country that is one part “rainslicked hairpin” and two parts “hard drive.” We come flying around the turn of the has-been heading toward outer space. The novel isn’t dead it’s necro. New means old; attics are basements; speed is grace.  We come to originality schooled with awareness that we’re just stirring the kettle, not even adding a pinch of saffron to it. What McSweeney is doing is “convulsive and self-contaminating, accessing both a Golden Age, a prehistory somehow concurrent with, even adjacent to, the present tense.”[iii]

            Tense is the operative denominator, as each “King Prion” first relieves the pressure with a valve-like whistle. “Hoooooooo” begins each poem in this seven-poem series with identical titles, as if none will withstand the heat of its own impetus without a preliminary release. The device is leading, generative of that space of union between reader and written Barthes uses to characterize text, and as demanding of confrontation as Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle.[iv] If you have heard McSweeney read the poems aloud, its operatic call is as up-lilting as a farmer bidding stock, summoning the Landrace of Bentheium in from the pastures, the fleecy white subjects of commercial interests. These are not your grandfather’s purchases.

            Like Barney’s five-film cycle, The Necropastoral is a performance, an enactment that takes readers off the presented page. If you cannot make the showing, it will not, for you, be made. But there is comfort in the packaging, like bringing home a brochure from the 2002-3 exhibition. If the craft did not open for you and carry you into what the Guggenheim show curator, Nancy Spector, calls the “self-enclosed aesthetic system” of Barney’s cycle, you can still walk away with a picture of the dehorned red-head to remind you of its alien vision. McSweeney’s system, in contrast, is referential and dependent on connections within and without the series, including the character of King Prion and pastoral rhetoric. Readers function  as a sonic bridge, transistors on whose ear crackles:


            Used to haunt

            the lobby While you stood there in your



            As anything tied to a spit


Every journeyman is an apprentice who learns the electrician’s trade by wiring her own circuits, and this writing asks more of us than conduit. In return, it offers itself as an art object. Andrew Shuta collages shimmer on the cover, drizzle a turquoise backdrop in front of which tree trunks and revolutionaries prop the title and motorbike wheels ride out a zombie highway, a kind of quid pro quo or guarantor of interest whether it is pulled out or not.

            The dominant figure that forms The Necropastoral is King Prion, who is a character that appears briefly in an 1898 travel narrative, Frederick Albion Ober’s Crusoe’s Island: A Bird Hunter’s Story. The book is introduced by its editor as part of a “home reading series,” which declares a “new education” that combines original observation and systematic home reading. If we now educate ourselves via experiments learned in the classroom, (and McSweeney is on faculty at the University of Notre Dame) we learned them from early classrooms. The editor who introduces Ober’s volume, William Harris, calls for a method to extend education from those initiatives at Cambridge and Oxford in which experts began supplementing home reading with round-tables, and discussion circles with lectures.  Harris promotes a method of reading that goes beyond the school to “make self-culture a habit of life.”[v]  The integration of creative writers and academia is an old story in which it is increasingly apparent that a teaching poet shapes not only the poetics of individual classrooms, but that of the reading public.  For those who would learn to hunt birds from this Prion king, begin by dragging a river of leaves.

            One reads The Necropastoral as one might read a label, skimming, with some resistance,  and uncertain as to just what manna we have been fed/drugged/diddled into:

            I just wanted to give my body to

            A net of guarine

            Ginkgo-biloba azatine melanine

            Camphobacter phylactery nicotine


Critical consciousness is discomfiting. How do women negotiate the “go-home-and-feed-the-baby milk of it” against “a highbrow eyebrow / Pencil skirt and smile”?[vi]  The way Rilke says we answer questions by living into them.

            Grounded in nothing but repetition, the poems circle round the locus of their winged, aerial center. A prion is both a folded protein and a small petrel bird. In Ober’s text, the prion is christened “King of the woods” by the bird-hunter, who, on a walk by a fern-laced stream meets him, learns his call and imitates it: “Who?” the hunter says, walking around, calling to the tree tops in mimicry.  Before the prion answers, a second arrives so that the bird-hunter cannot know if it is the original prion or a competitor who answers his “Who?” for “Who?” in echo, but they go on “bandying words for awhile and thoroughly mystifying the wondering birds.”[vii] Except birds do not mystify, only people. If you want to be ignored, try conversing across genus. The small petrel  is more interested in its gullet than a human agent. Against its implied disinterest, the  question of “Who?” reverberates outside this forest toward the ontological questions posed by the Chesire cat, Ramana Maharshi, and others. As Alice and numerous sanyyasins attest, seeking the answer outside oneself indicates trouble. McSweeney drops that call for response. The “Hoooooooo” that opens each poem implies there are no questions but ones that answer:


            Beggar French

            His hat blade cut the murk about his

            Antibody. His switchhand

            Switched like a cat.


            McSweeney’s swashbuckling use of a sometime-Victorian capitalization emphasizes the performative quality of the lyric, as idiosyncratically tuned as Hopkins meter. Sound-driven by the “ooh-oon” of lagoon and ah, the same aural compulsion that drives a title like Bernadette Meyer’s The Desires of Mothers to Please Others in Letters is alive and kicking. Listen to “bent / Over the medical suite / Table In San Diego Wholly / Martyred from the bottom”[viii] and tell me rhyme hasn’t gone underground and offed itself, triumphed and risen. Reclaimed and incantatory, this verse isn’t high, it’s inebriate of air and syllable, spinning Emily Dickinson: “You thought you could Death / On your own terms Do.”[ix] Fat chance Andromeda cat, the age-old hymnals will even school you.

            The Necropastoral is in conversation with a pastoral tradition that most recently includes Erik Anderson’s The Poetics of Trespass, (Otis Books, Seismicity Editions, 2010). The initiate of his project is to step off the letters p-a-s-t-o-r-a-l in a twenty-block Denver radius. A travel record of pointed wandering to find domestic comfort anywhere, Trespass realizes the find is not what is imperative but that “soul stirred by some divinely wrought swizzle.” In it as well as McSweeney, the “I” recedes along the avenues, undergoing recession and decay. Death, McSweeney clarifies, is media, while Anderson illustrates it via Roland Barthes’ The Lover’s Discourse:die Wunde, die Wunde! says Parsifal, thereby becoming ‘himself.’” The loss of the self traces a ghostly expedition through streets, as his speaker walks out thought in all its iterations, which “is not the thinking.” The thinking is something else and possibly unthinkable. The crush is generative. Normal Love, referenced in McSweeney’s introductory essay, is a never-finale of a 20-year old cinematic project that did not solidify as a completed work. The 1989 death of filmmaker Jack Smith alone caps a narrative by stopping the wax pencil whereby the bleed was endless because the editing process was.

            The concluding section, “Arcadia,” or “Anachronism: A Necropastoral Effigy” is a list and stabilizing scaffold on which to burn the I that has been resurrected. It has more lives than a cat. Unstable as a nucleic acid exposed to the misfoldings of prion, “I” was a few items ago a camera and before that, a sheep and “an at home experience,” and further, La Lunette and springtime. I is in transit, more of an incubation period, an operating table from which clones are harvested or “shedding copies.”[x]  I is an artist by which chronos is unseated, because to keep time is to lose it. Grace changed, or “had changed.” She was running from a marine, “she hadn’t known…but she would feel the presence of his activities.”[xi] The pun is clever and wry, one of many reminders to keep readers on their toes. “Now I am another,” the last line reads.  By it nothing is laid to rest but the sweet corn compost of psychological illusion. Let’s just say, as Cher did of Velvet Underground, here lies an anarchy so restive it “won’t replace anything, except maybe suicide.” Thus, carpe artem! Seize not the day but those streetsmart shepherds who grasp it.



[i] Toliver, Harold. Pastoral Forms and Attitudes. Berkeley: University of California Press,             1971. Print. 3

[ii] McSweeney, Joyelle. The Necro-pastoral. Spork Press, 2011. Print. 9

[iii] Ibid., 2

[iv] The Cremaster Cycle website including film clip.

[v] Ober, Frederick A. Crusoe’s Island: A Bird-hunter’s Story. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1898. Print. viii

[vi] Ibid., 15

[vii] Ibid., 15

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 30

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